The island community is run like (or rather, by) a
cult: the founder, Dr. Rincon, is a mesmeric, unseen figure,
and the clones (who call themselves the Jimminies) are kept isolated
from the outside world and fed a steady supply of medicine and
anti-religion diatribes by a group of twenty Elder Physicians.
Despite the popular notion that cloning is a recent science,
the secret community has been actively run for over thirty years,
and it has produced several generations of potential donors (the
younger clones are kept isolated on an adjacent Nursery island).
But--inevitably--something goes wrong, and a few of the clones
begin to rebel, albeit naively.
First, an adolescent boy nicknamed Raisin begins to act up.
Then he convinces his best friend Skyler to begin testing the
closed society's restrictions as well. When Raisin disappears
and the scientists tell Skyler that his friend drowned during
a failed escape attempt, Skyler decides to take up his friend's
cause. Soon, Skyler and his secret girlfriend--another clone,
of course--find themselves on the verge of breaking into the
community's password-protected computer files.
Then the seemingly healthy girlfriend abruptly dies--always
a bad sign in thrillers, of course--and Skyler is forced to escape
on his own. Immediately.
In the meantime,
a thirty-year-old newspaper reporter named Jude Harley gets a
tip to investigate a murder case in upstate New York. The victim's
fingertips have been burnt off and the skin peeled off his face
to hide his identity. Initially, the doctor conducting the autopsy
places the victim's age between twenty-two and twenty-six. But
he's astonished to find the internal organs belong to a much
older man. And his teeth are cavity-free and perfect--as if he'd
never needed to visit a dentist. "No prints and now no dental
records," the doctor says. "That makes him practically
Before Jude can pursue the case, he's assigned to a seemingly
minor story on twins, and he's given the name of a woman in the
field--Elizabeth Tierney, a thirty-year-old researcher with an
interesting theory that twins share a single soul. Inevitably,
Jude and Elizabeth fall in love. Then Skyler shows up in Jude's
apartment building, dirty and thin, but still recognizable as...Jude's
twin. And Elizabeth, Skyler is shocked to realize, is the spitting
image of his dead girlfriend.
Improbable coincidences, you might think. But what if they're
being driven through the events on purpose by unseen hands? Slowly,
the notion dawns on the three characters that, in fact, it might
not be a series of coincidences that drove them together. But
who is behind it? The government? The cult? And who, precisely,
seems so dead-set on killing them before they get answers?
ago, Darnton's plot would have seemed fantastic--a philosopher's
quandary, meant more to give an ethics question shape than anything
else. Now, though, in the Age of Dolly (the world's first cloned
sheep), it's no longer merely hypothetical. Politicians have
debated whether laws should be passed world-wide to prohibit
human cloning, only to be confronted with the obvious practical
question that Darnton raises: what's to keep a small renegade
organization from working on the sly--offshore, perhaps, or in
a nondescript lab in the middle of nowhere?
After all, it's one thing to keep a large pharmaceutical company
from branching out into bioengineering with great fanfare and
soaring stock prices. It's quite another to keep a wealthy individual
from quietly commissioning the creation of an extra liver or
a kidney, in the event that he might need it.
The fact that it's a breathing, thinking, feeling human storing
the organs could be the best-kept secret in the world--even from
the donor himself. Indeed, we might each of us be clones--or
unwitting recipients--in a secret bid against mortality. Who,
after all, is to say?
Of course, The
Experiment is, in the end, a thriller, and while he's not
a great prose stylist, Darnton delivers enough plot twists and
surprises to keep you reading late into the night (which most
arcane science books can't do, unfortunately). He's particularly
good at provoking that delicious paranoia which makes you question
each new character's intent: good guy? Bad guy? Should Jude be
trusting this guy?
At some point, readers might even find the paranoia creeping
into their own lives. And this is where Darnton pulls off one
of his better tricks: he manages to get his readers to personalize
his ethical questions. For example: have you ever gotten the
feeling you're not alone in the world? That you might have an
unknown twin soul somewhere? Strange feeling--and not all that
rare. Now imagine that you have been told, quite suddenly, that
you need a new kidney to avert premature death. Would you find
yourself, despite your better nature, hoping that twin soul would
step forward and be more of a twin kidney and less a twin soul?
Steven Spielberg has already bought the film rights to Darnton's
first novel (Neanderthal), and The Experiment,
with its science-outracing-ethics theme, seems ripe for Spielberg
as well. Who knows: a year or two from now, we may be debating
clones and Kantian ethics the way Spielberg and Crichton's Jurassic
Park made us wonder about dinosaurs and DNA replication.